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India: Move To Scuttle Proper Assessment of the Environmental Risks

by Latha Jishnu, 29 May 2009

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Business Standard, May 28, 2009

A dangerous green signal

A secret report aims to make environmental clearance a standardised exercise that bypasses critical requirements.

Environmental safeguards, whittled down as they are, are coming under strain once again as the government attempts to fast-track statutory clearances for industrial and infrastructure projects. The effort this time is to standardise formats and clearances and to arrive at a single-window scheme of approvals that would negate the need to comply with several critical laws. Environmental experts say that the most dangerous of the proposed changes is to make environmental regulation part of the clearance process itself.

The latest initiative has been launched because the government believes that clearances are taking far too long and that projects are getting stuck in procedural bottlenecks. At the 54th meeting of the National Development Council in December 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had promised that he would ask the finance ministry to constitute an expert group “to go into the system of statutory clearances for industrial and infrastructure projects and suggest concrete ways for speeding these up”. Consequently, in April 2008 an expert group was set up under the chairmanship of the secretary of the Department of Economic Affairs. It comprised representatives of the three industry lobbies (CII, Ficci, Assocham), the privately-owned Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services and Infrastructure Development and Finance Corporation and the government-owned India Infrastructure Finance Company Ltd. There were also a couple of officials from the Department of Industrial Policy and Planning and the Planning Commission in it. Neither the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) — it was only consulted with during the deliberations — nor the environment lobby found a place in this group.

Over four sittings, it prepared a detailed report outlining recommendations to cut short the delay in clearance. Ways of implementing this secret report, which was ready in November 2008, are now being studied by a high-powered committee convened by the Planning Commission Secretary Subas Chandra Pani. This committee, too, has a similar profile as the expert group, the only difference being that a lone environmentalist, Sunita Narain, director of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, is also part of it.

On the face of it, the expert group’s work could be described as a housecleaning exercise in which dirty corners of the clearance process are being rid of accumulated grime and blockages. The experts looked at 10 central and four state-level clearances that are mandatory but kept financial and sectoral clearances that are specific to, say, power, ports, etc, out of its purview. Ditto for land acquisition and the issues of relief and rehabilitation. Based on their analysis, they have called for streamlining the processes through web-enabled formats and online monitoring of the progress.

But that’s as far as the positive recommendations go. Embedded in their 20-odd recommendations are far-reaching changes that are weighted against a proper assessment of the environmental risks, and experts are warning that the consequences of such a speeding up process could be lethal in the long term. Among the worrying proposals: Self-certification by the project developer is to be the norm; public hearings are to be curtailed, the discussion being restricted “to only those issues which are in dispute”; projects not given clearances within a specified time-frame to be deemed as cleared. In short, the 68-page dossier seeks relaxations and exemptions for a host of projects while narrowing the processes involved in procuring clearances. It also puts undue emphasis on standardisation, which militates against the need for agencies to apply their mind to the specific locations and the demands imposed by different industrial and infrastructure projects.

The worst part is that the report is still marked secret and has not been put up for public discussion. One copy, however, is doing the rounds among the green lobby and is now available with Business Standard. Videh Upadhyay, environmental lawyer who has examined the recommendations of the group, is aghast at the critical changes that are being sought to be made in the legal framework covering different aspects of environmental clearance and regulation. For instance, the expert group says that “once a project has been cleared under the EIA notification, multiple other clearances then should not be required”. This reflects a poor understanding of the functions of the different laws. The blanket clearance sought to be given to industrial and infrastructure projects is simply not on, says Upadhyay, because laws such as the Air and Water Act have a different mandate from the EIA clearance.

Narain, too, is taken aback by the suggestion. In a note to Pani, she has said: “The committee has completely missed the point that there are different roles — the promotion of industry cannot be dovetailed into the regulation of industry.” This, in fact, is a universal complaint of the green lobby. Manju Menon of the Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group of Delhi, an advocacy outfit, is emphatic that the terms of reference for project evaluation cannot be standardised beyond a point due to the peculiarities of the sites even if the projects or the technology is similar. “The EIA,” she emphasises, “is a qualitative process not a quantitative one.”

But the problem with the report is more fundamental: It is based on the false premise that projects have been held up unduly. Going by the statistics provided by the MoEF, the number of projects coming for clearance has shot up from 240 in 2001 to 4,590 in 2007. Yet, clearances have been given at a galloping rate without any recruitments having been made in the last 15 years to augment its technical staff. Although the report takes notes of this gaping lacuna it makes no recommendations on this score.

Based on the minutes available on the MoEF website, the CSE estimates that a total of 3,463 projects were assessed between January 1, 2008 and February 17, 2009. Of these, a staggering 75 per cent were cleared; 24 per cent are pending and only 0.8 per cent has been rejected. “The question that should be asked is why are so few projects rejected? What is important to note is that a key reason for delay is that companies are constantly asked to ‘justify’ the feasibility of the project so that it can be ‘cleared’. In fact, we have found that every time local people dispute the project, the company wants the process delayed so that the matter dies down,” says Narain.

A scrutiny of the case studies cited by the expert group reveals that five projects have been selected arbitrarily: Two thermal power projects in Arunachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, a ropeway project in Uttarakhand, Delhi’s municipal waste processing complex and a foundry park in West Bengal, all of whose locations have been kept secret at the request of the developer. None of the cases proves that there have been undue delays across the board.

As Upadhyay points out, “You can as easily cite cases to prove the other extreme. Projects have been cleared in just six days although their impact was widespread. The clearance for the Ganga Expressway which cuts through a dozen districts of Uttar Pradesh has been challenged in the Allahabad High Court.”

The expert group report, thus, has to be scrutinised on three criteria: the intent, methodology and content, he says. On all counts, it turns out to be a suspect exercise, and is part of the effort to whittle regulations periodically, say critics. The decision to set up the expert groups comes a little over a year after the EIA notification of 2006. That itself was a watering down of the 1994 regulation. In January this year, the MoEF attempted a further ‘streamlining’ of the 2006 notification which has incorporated a few of the recommendations of the expert group already (see ‘Diluting Environmental regulations’, April 4).

“What we need to discuss instead is the strengthening of the regulatory agencies for better project assessment (not just clearance); its personnel requirements and infrastructure needs. It is important to focus on the monitoring aspects post-clearance, not just the ‘transaction costs’ in clearance”, says Narain. But with the industry and government intent on setting up a speedway for clearances, it appears unlikely that they will heed sage advice.